Last Saturday my daughter Millie and I ventured into Manchester for the afternoon. Sometimes my home city leaves me feeling young, sometimes feeling old. Often, weary.
While we were there, my wife sent me a text asking me to pick her up a pair of slippers. Slippers-the must have for middle aged people everywhere.
We went into Next, where I foolishly expected an uneventful stroll around a spacious store. Air conditioning, light music playing in the background. Perhaps a few leafy plants.
It was bedlam. Like the Boxing Day battles you see on the news. People were competing everywhere, nudging each other out of the way, sweaty and red faced, paper and labels strewn all over the floor, with no seats or benches left unoccupied for my daughter to dramatically collapse onto.
Explaining why I was there, I asked a young beleaguered assistant for directions towards the latest thing in fluffiness. I also asked her whether it was always this chaotic in there. I usually associated this kind of feeding frenzy with Primark, and so stubbornly avoided all requests from my wife to set foot in there.
I think I had been blindsided.
She nodded sagely. “Always. Not just Saturdays either.” She pointed towards the long, snaking queue. “If you want to abandon things, take a photograph to show your wife what it’s like.”
Get thee behind me Satan.
I got the best slippers a tenner could find (I got the only ones left in her size) and joined the snaking, sweaty queue. I was immediately aware of a woman in my peripheral vision, approaching with something sparkly, two sullen, slovenly kids in tow. An unsmiling boy and a pouting girl. They took their place behind me.
I heard one of the kids speak, not whining or complaining, just monotonously asking when they were going somewhere else. Probably anywhere else.
Mum answered, very sharply:
“Be quiet. I spent the whole of yesterday buying you clothes for our holiday, and now I’m getting myself clothes. It’s my turn now.”
The boy let out a huge sigh, “I only said.”
Very loudly, in a head turning way, she exclaimed “God, do I need this holiday!”
I got the feeling that her dream holiday might not live up to her expectations.
With fluffy footwear bagged, we then headed for the bus station. As we left the Arndale shopping center we passed a couple with two boys. The man was bent down so he could look one of the lads square in the eyes.
“So you just went ahead and did it, did you? You did it off your own back?” Then, threateningly, “We will return to this when we get home.”
I guided Millie past while her head remained glued in their direction. “What did he do, Dad?”
Who knows. Maybe something murderous.
There was no doubt whatsoever that tempers were fraying at the edges, people seemed a little touchy and impatient. The kids had only finished for the school holidays the day before-there was still six and a half weeks to go. Maybe it was the hot day beating everybody down, along with the thunderstorm that disrupted everybody’s sleep the night before.
We got on a bus and went upstairs, opening a window to let a little warm air into the stuffy deck. Other passengers joined us, and to my utter chagrin coming to sit in front of us were the couple with the two lads, adults sitting on one seat and their sons sitting on the other on the opposite side of the aisle. From the back the children looked slumped, and Mum was sat at an angle so she could peer out of the window and not have to face her loving clan. You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. As the bus pulled out of the station, one of the lads decided flattery was the highest form of creeping.
Mum continued to look out of the window, answering with a very disinterested “Am I?”
In a conflict of confrontation-when-home-avoidance-desperation and sibling rivalry, his brother joined in. “Mum, you’re the most beautiful woman in the world.”
“Is that right?” No change in tone. She was obviously accustomed to this strategy.
But then, surprisingly, Dad joined in. “People might say it, but we all KNOW it.”
He then started serenading her with a paraphrased Christina Aguilera song. “Because you’re beautiful, no matter what they say. Words won’t bring you down. Because you’re beautiful….”
She showed signs of thawing as the air on the moving bus became a little less oppressive. My daughter collapsed into a fit of giggles which I tried to stifle, as we left behind the anchor of our satellite towns.
Manchester always leaves me feeling either young or feeling old.
But never uninspired.
A bit of colour and a daughter’s smile. Never uninspired.